A year ago, as the pandemic set in and we were all relegated inside whatever four walls we called home, there was time to take stock of our living situations. After an initial reaction that may have included cowering under our duvets with hand sanitizer or Googling basic survival skills we’d failed to acquire, we looked around and asked ourselves: Do our safe havens rise to the moment? And, with everyone home, can our abodes carry the load?
“Had this been a six-week event, everything might have gone back to the way it was,” says Patty Anker, a licensed Realtor with Howard Hanna Rand Realty in Thornwood. But fast-forward a year later, and certain home trends have started to set in. Anker feels the more milestones we pass under lockdown, the more ingrained this new way of living becomes. Whether our homes support us or not matters more than ever.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, if you lived in a small apartment — especially if you relied on an elevator — you were screwed. If you had a balcony… now that was something. But maybe not enough. Small was no longer beautiful, so an exodus from the city was ignited, and Westchester was flooded with prospective homebuyers.
“Generally, before COVID, people wanted proximity to the city,” says Debra Goodwin, a licensed Realtor with Corcoran Legends Realty in Irvington. “But after COVID set in, that wasn’t as important to people.”
Westchester’s suburban southern towns are a draw for sure, but there’s been a particular demand for the county’s nature-rich northern reaches, leading to inventory shortages and bidding wars.
“People want big again,” says Angela Kessel, a licensed Realtor with Houlihan Lawrence’s Bedford office. “We have large homes here, with a lot of multipurpose space.”
“One hundred percent, buyers are looking for space,” adds Casey Rosenblum, who is a licensed Realtor with Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty in Larchmont.
But that begs the question: space for what exactly? Certain home features rose to the forefront of desirability and, in the ensuing months, took hold in our collective zeitgeist. Now, there seems to be a consensus about what is required for a home to serve us well, to nurture us. We want space to work, play, and be with family. We want to cook and exercise, to hoard food, toilet paper, and — God love us — wine.
Generally, we played house with a furiousness, which, a year later, still seems kinda right.
“There’s been a major shift in what buyers are looking for,” says John Oliveira, a licensed Realtor with Douglas Elliman in Scarsdale who, along with fellow agents throughout Westchester, is trying to gauge whether the pandemic has altered our ideals long term.
“I think the general sense is that we’ve entered a new age,” says Debbie Cuiffo, a licensed Realtor with Coldwell Banker’s Katonah office. To determine what that might look like, we asked the question: What constitutes the perfect COVID-era home?
Before the pandemic set in, there had been a definitive move toward urbanization throughout Westchester. The live/work/play ethos seemed to be the prevailing sentiment, with new downtown development projects in the works all over. People wanted smaller, easier, more urban. But since then, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Even city-style stalwarts who were not willing to compromise on the ability to walk everywhere “are now forgoing that desire for a little more land, a little more nature, and a little more space,” says Rosenblum.
“A lot of people from Southern Westchester are moving north to get more privacy,” adds Anker. And some buyers from the city who were initially considering suburban Southern Westchester for its proximity to city jobs have reconsidered. “They thought: Wait a minute… now we can’t sell our apartment in the city, so maybe we go farther north, in Westchester, and have a weekend home instead,” says Cuiffo.
“Outdoor space is essential right now,” Cuiffo says. Luckily, the onset of the pandemic coincided with the onset of spring, which nurtured us when we needed it, with fresh air and sunshine for virus-fighting vitamin D. If we had them, we took to our yards and found pleasure in gardening, biking, power-washing our driveways, and any combination of pool/firepit/patio we could muster. When things opened up a bit, we invited friends and grandparents to come hang six feet apart in amped-up outdoor living spaces. We’re still clinging to that. “People want outdoor kitchens, outdoor fireplaces, nature, greenery, tennis courts, and pools,” says Kessel. Homeowners are even bringing projector screens outside to watch sporting events and for kids to play video games with friends. Some of us (a lot of us) bought dogs and wanted more room for them to roam.
“A little more land, a little more nature, and a little more space.”
That outdoor space had to carry us through the colder months, too, leading to a rush on space heaters and outdoor lounge furniture. Anker says if buyers could picture hanging around a firepit, it’s reassuring. “You feel like you don’t have to say goodbye to friends forever,” she notes.
We hosted holidays outside and maybe even a learning pod or two. “The safety element outside is so much higher,” says Rosenblum of Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty. “I know people who had Thanksgiving dinner outside. It’s become an extension of our living rooms and kitchens.”
“A house with a pool is considered gold right now,” says Douglas Elliman’s Oliveira. During the summer, when people didn’t know if they could send their kids to camp or visit their clubs or community pools, this amenity shot to the top of the list, he reports.
“Everybody wants a pool,” confirms Kessel.
This wasn’t always the case. Before COVID, pools weren’t always a perk for homebuyers who didn’t want to deal with safety concerns or maintenance. “Clients would say, ‘Okay, we’ll just fill it in,’” says Rosenblum.
Citing the same concerns, Corcoran’s Goodwin says that before COVID, the number of homebuyers looking for pools during showings was about half. “Pools were considered a liability,” she says.
In Northern Westchester, Kessel says pools were always a plus, but now the desire for them has increased due to COVID. “Family and friends flock to homes here with outdoor amenities,” adds Kessel.
Goodwin has shown houses where the buyers were less interested in the house than the pool. And if there isn’t a pool, buyers want to make sure there is space to put one in, she reports. Space for above-ground pools also became important.
“Kids can play in the pool for hours,” says Rosenblum. “It’s an activity.”
Inside, we created new ways to work and school from any niche we could find. Colleagues and classmates were suddenly in our homes via Zoom — whether we liked it or not. The general thought is that even when offices start opening up, people will still operate from home somewhat, so real estate agents expect this to impact home searches. “I think a lot of people like [the work/home balance] and want to keep that in their lives,” says Cuiffo.
Prior to the pandemic, some workplaces were already moving in the direction of fewer days in the office anyway. “I don’t think people will ever go back to the office in the way that they did,” says Rosenblum.
A desirable home-office space can be as elaborate as having a large flat-screen TV overlooking a boardroom-style desk or as simple as positioning yourself someplace bright, with great wallpaper in the background or a carefully curated bookcase — what many call a “Zoom room.”
“I think people are going to start thinking more about a setting for potential Zoom calls, including lighting and backgrounds,” agrees Goodwin. Not only for all the family members who already live in the home but even for relatives and/or friends coming for extended visits. Homeowners are thinking, Where in the house do I put this person, so they can do calls?
According to Kessel, people are also looking for not just one workspace but two or three potential office spaces, as well as a school area for kids and comfortable areas for social calls.
“Families have become multigenerational again,” says Rosenblum. While our connection to the general public dimmed, our familial connections strengthened throughout periods of stay-at-home. Grandparents, adult children, and quarantine buddies came to stay with us for long stretches.
Kessel says her buyers include not only young families moving out of the city but young empty nesters buying family homes, so older children can come up, spend time, and use the pool or tennis courts. “There’s been a lot of intergenerational living,” she says. “People want to be together.”
“People want their own private spaces for many reasons and, frankly, just to have time to themselves.”
Space for extended family and even separate quarantining space, like having an extra bedroom with a bathroom, is a major consideration, “so that [people] can safely be with family members again,” says Rosenblum.
Kids also need activity space. Multipurpose rooms, like basements and attics, are also important. “There’s more need for private space all around,” says Cuiffo.
“People want their own private spaces for many reasons and, frankly, just to have time to themselves,” adds Rosenblum.
Private space may be at the top of everyone’s list, but the open-kitchen/living-room concept is still going strong, as space for gathering in the heart of the home is crucial. If anything, people are looking to open up kitchens to outdoor spaces, as well. “People still want that open feel,” says Kessel. “There’s a renewed interest in cooking and nurturing.”
Stocked and organized kitchens and plenty of room to chef it up, with a wartime supply of canned beans and homemade sourdough starter, became critical. “People are definitely looking for spaces to store now more than ever before,” says Rosenblum.
“Plus, we’re not going out to eat,” says Oliveira of our halted restaurant culture. As such, cooking became the best way to define our days and feed our souls, offering that sense of well-being we craved more than anything.
Moving forward, these trends appear poised to stick around for a while. According to Anker, the Westchester homebuyer seeking the perfect COVID-era living space is ultimately just like the rest of us: “They want safety; they want health; they want hope.”
“Before [COVID], I can’t remember clients saying, ‘We need gym space,’” reports Oliveira.
But in-home gyms have become almost a necessity. “Gym space is critical,” adds Kessel. She goes on to say that buyers are being creative when it comes to looking for possibilities: They can create gym space in a lower level, a bonus room, an extra bedroom, or even in a garage. Anker, meanwhile, points out that gym space is one way to combat the restlessness people feel.
During showings, Oliveira reports hearing prospective homeowners saying, “I can do yoga here,” or “I can put my Peloton there.” If the home has a finished basement or attic, homebuyers want to know if there’s enough height for working out. “Definitely having a high-enough ceiling is a concern,” says Goodwin. “Even when we stage, we allude to an area of the basement as a gym.”
More dedicated workout space is one of the features agents think will stick. “I think the germ element is a factor,” Rosenblum says. “It’s going to take a while for people to feel safe sharing the same space [at a gym].”
Bottom line, if working out is a regular part of your life, your home needs to support that. “Everything has to be at home,” says Cuiffo.